Gifted and Talented class creates school newspaper to develop creative writing skills


By Kristen Meriwether

When the school year began, teacher Wendy Pleak needed a sustainable long-term project for her fifth grade gifted and talented class. The Rancho Sienna Elementary School teacher was familiar with the students, having taught them for the previous few years.
She recalled the students’ love of writing and the district’s push for developing creative writing. Pleak thew out a bold idea: what about creating a school newspaper?

She pitched it to her students and the digital-natives loved it. With help from Pleak, the ten and 11-year-old students have brought the idea from concept to reality, producing their first edition of The Rancho Times on Oct. 21.

“They had fun making it,” Pleak told The Independent. “That’s kind of what they’re doing, just playing and learning. But most importantly, really learning about journalism, learning how fun writing can be.”

The project is designed for fun but the students take their responsibility very seriously. Every student has laminated press passes for going out on assignment, thanks to Madeleine Heiderscheit, 11, who is a feature writer for The Rancho Times.

Everyone in the class has a responsibility for the paper. Some write features, others produce profiles and some pitched and created kid-friendly content for the entertainment section like jokes or how to make fun science projects at home.

Pleak recognized not every student was interested in writing so she tapped some students to serve as editors or photographers. The variety allows every student to pitch in whatever talents they bring to the project.

Jacob Anderson, 10, is in the class along with his twin sister Madeline and serves as an editor for the newspaper due to his top-notch spelling skills.

“There was rarely a word that I couldn’t spell,” Anderson said. “I wanted to be an editor so I can correct my twin.”

Phoebe Johnson-Quaife, 11, brought her love of photography to the project, shooting most of the photos for the first edition.

“It made me feel good that I got to see my photos were actually in there,” Johnson-Quaife said. “The whole school sees that.”

The Independent recently attended an editorial meeting for the second edition of The Rancho Times and found their process very similar to a professional newsroom. The writers pitched ideas and Pleak, who serves as Editor in Chief for the group, helped the young journalists develop their ideas.

The class discussed and debated what the lead story would be for the second edition. Options included an upcoming Veterans Day ceremony and the Storybook Parade for Healthy Habits Week.

Following the meeting, Heiderscheit, who is tasked with the front-page feature, was pecking away at her keyboard, hard at work on next month’s A1 story.

Aubrey Brand, 10, and Peyton Brown, 11, are in charge of the Teacher Feature section. After several years with the same teachers, the pair said they have a special connection to the staff. They both jumped at the opportunity to interview and highlight the teachers at their school.

The process helped these fifth graders learn a lesson nearly every journalist learns: going out on assignment is fun, but the writing on deadline when you get back is the hardest part.

“The interviewing is pretty easy and fun,” Brand said. “But after you do the interviewing, you have to write a draft and find out what you’re going to say and not make it sound weird.”

The pair managed to find out what to write just fine, producing six profiles and three award bios for the first edition.

Once completed Pleak put the paper together and produced a PDF that was included in the school’s newsletter and social media accounts. For many of the students it was the first time they created something that was seen beyond their family or classroom.

“I felt proud and excited that people are going to get to see what we did because not many people get to see what we do in GT (gifted and talented),” Brown said.

Zoe Lorence, 10, who co-wrote a feature on Hispanic Heritage Month for the first edition, agreed.

“I was excited that someone reads what I, and my partners, made,” Lorence said. “I think it’s really cool that people do that.”

Pleak hopes more will be able to read her students’ work in the future. Right now they do not have any funds to print a physical copy. But she hopes that will change.

“That’s the one thing we’re having trouble with,” Pleak said. “It would be neat if we could find a way to mass-produce a paper so that every kid could have one.”